Row of stone-built cottages
Bakewell Almhouses, Derbyshire
Wikimedia Commons

An almshouse, also known as a hospital, maison dieu,[1] or in Scotland a parish house,[2] is a charitable foundation for the care of the poor, particularly the elderly poor.[1] It was originally the name given to that part of a medieval monastery in which alms – food and money – were distributed,[3] but during the Middle Ages almshouses were often built by rich merchants for the needy members of their guilds.[4]

Almshouses usually consisted of small houses of at most two storeys, sometimes arranged in a terrace, but often around three or four sides of a central court, with perhaps a separate house for the warden;[4] they sometimes also incorporated a chapel and dining hall.[5] By the mid-16th century there were about 800 almshouses across England. Those with chapels were regarded as chantries, chapels established by bequest in which a priest was paid to say masses and pray for the soul of the deceased benefactor,[6][a]Almshouses were also known as bede-houses, bede being a Middle English form of “bead”, an archaic term for “prayer”.[7] which resulted in them being either sold off to landowners or left to ruin during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1539–1540).[8]

Following the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) some of the old almshouses were re-established, and many new ones founded by private benefactors. Beginning with the Act for the Relief of the Poor 1597, the charitable relief provided by almshouses was supplemented by a series of Poor Laws.[3]


See caption
Tollemache Almshouses, Nantwich
Wikimedia Commons

As at 2023 there are more than 30,000 almshouse dwellings in the UK, accommodating more than 36,000 residents,[9] known as qualified beneficiaries. Instead of rent they are required to pay a weekly maintenance contribution “that must not be set at a level that would cause hardship”.[10]

Almshouse trusts were generally founded by benefactors in earlier times to provide for those in need and often to cater for a particular group of people. Today there are almshouses for retired fishermen, miners, retail workers and a host of other groups in addition to the elderly. Some almshouse charities have no age restrictions and are able to accommodate families, the disabled and key workers.[11]


a Almshouses were also known as bede-houses, bede being a Middle English form of “bead”, an archaic term for “prayer”.[7]